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The X-Files (Topps) #23 – Donor (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Donor is the strongest of John Rozum’s work on The X-Files to this point. It might be his best work overall.

It is a story that very clearly and very strongly plays off the classic horror vibe that has been running through this stretch of episodes, taking the idea of supernatural revenge and poetic justice to almost blackly comic extremes. In many respects, John Rozum has pushed the comics towards a very traditional sort of moralistic storytelling – with characters frequently facing ironic consequences of their actions.

Organ grinder...

Organ grinder…

In The Silent Blade, a mass murderer kills himself with the blade that compelled him to kill. In The Kanashibari, a bunch of college kids who terrified an asthmatic classmate to death by locking him in a closet are themselves scared to death by a suffocating spectre. In Silver Lining, a killer murders innocent people to reclaim his good looks, only to lose them almost immediately in a fire while fleeing the FBI.

So Donor pushes this sort of storytelling to its logical extreme, as the resurrected body of Bruce Miller tries to reclaim the organs that his widow donated without his consent. Bruce Miller plans to take back what is rightfully his, harvesting various vital organs from recipients. Donor is a very dark little done-in-one story with a delightfully wry and cynical attitude that elevates it above many of its contemporaries.

"You have something that I need..."

“You have something that I need…”

Of course, there is nothing immoral about organ donations. Organs save lives, and donating organs is an incredibly selfless act on the part of the deceased or the next of kin. Those who receive organ transplants have no say in the origin of the organs. While there are undoubtedly lots of horror stories around organ transplants (mainly those tales about organ harvesting or organ theft that were popular in the nineties), organ donation is a pretty clear social good.

So the fun in Donor is in seeing the traditional horror movie morality applied to something that is very much a sane a logical process. After all, John Rozum’s work here seems to be drawing from classic horror storytelling, particularly the sort of “poetic justice” stories that were frequently featured in E.C. Comics and other such horror comics. There was something almost biblical in the way that those stories would mete out justice.

"Schlock" is a delightfully appropriate sound effect.

“Schlock” is a delightfully appropriate sound effect.

In those stories – as in many horror stories – there was a clear moral dimension to the terror. Characters would frequently be punished for their perceived “transgressions”, making mistakes which served to suggest that the brutality inflicted upon them was somehow punishment for some wrong committed. Ironically, this suggests that the morality of horror films often aligns rather closely with that of those most strongly opposed to horror films.

There is a casual tendency towards conservative morality in these horror stories. This is most obvious is the slasher genre, where it frequently seems that teenagers are being punished for engaging in sexual activity and the observation that the “final girl” tends to be a virgin. This implicit morality could often seem a little hypocritical – as if it validated the audience’s desire to watch both the transgression and the resulting punishment.

All broken up...

All broken up…

Donor seems to acknowledge this paradox in these sorts of stories. After all, Bruce Miller is presented as an undead monster motivated by his own religious sense of right and wrong. His religion argues that it is wrong to remove a person’s organs after death, so Bruce Miller is resurrected to harvest his organs from their recipients. It is a very sly and very subversive take on the sort of traditional horror narrative featured in episodes like Teso Dos Bichos.

Donor even reinforces this sense of transgression in Mulder and Scully’s early conversation with Francine Miller. When Francine reveals that she donated her husband’s organs, Scully asks whether she picked up her own donor card. “No,” Francine replies. “I haven’t. Yet. It’s harder when it’s your own body.” It establishes that Francine was more comfortable defying her husband’s wishes than she would be consenting to the same treatment herself.

"But they said the embalming fluid was INflammable!"

“But they said the embalming fluid was INflammable!”

So there is something delightfully off-balance about all this. Most of the surrounding classic horror homages are rather one-dimensional in nature. The villains in The Silent Blade, The Kanashibari, and Silver Lining are all indisputably and undeniably monstrous and evil – deserving of the bitter twists at the end of the story. In contrast, Donor sets up a number of interesting moral issues with which the story can play.

Of course Bruce Miller is right to be upset – his wife violated his own clear wishes and did something to him that she could not consent to have done to herself. It was immoral for Francine to give away his organs against his wishes. The basic formula for this sort of horror story is in effect. However, the organ recipients are innocent by-standers with no real complicity in what happened, and there is no way they can be blamed for Francine Miller’s transgression.

Grave threat...

Grave threat…

The result is a delightfully dark story that twists audience expectations on their head by upsetting the standard rules for this sort of narrative. It is a delightfully twisty and zany take on a familiar set of horror tropes, as opposed to a simple homage. Donor has a vital energy lacking from many of the surrounding stories, and it really feels like it is having great fan with a delightfully demented set up.

More than any of Rozum’s early stories, Donor would work as an episode of the show. In fact, the story is packed with wonderful visuals for artist Charles Adlard to realise. The idea of a shuffling undead corpse trying to stitch himself back together is quite memorable, and Adlard does a wonderful job of implying grotesque imagery without ever feeling excessive. (In particular, the victim who had their bone marrow removed is hauntingly realised.)

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

Rozum’s script also sparkles, playing with its own ideas. If Donor is a slightly broken take on the type of story that Rozum has been telling over the past few months, he really runs with the idea. Mulder gets to be wrong in Donor, because he pitches a plausible explanation that is simultaneously too absurd and too grounded to fully account for what is going on. There is something hilariously subversive about Mulder having an outlandish incorrect theory.

“At first, I thought maybe Bruce Miller had angered some cult who was trying to get back at him by using his organs in a black magic ceremony,” Mulder explains to Scully. “But that seemed to reaching a bit. Not to mention, they would have left some sort of calling card.” It is a wonderful theory that feels perfectly in-character for Mulder, seeming like the kinda crazy stuff he’d come out with if the writers weren’t feeding him the right answer.

Eye spy...

Eye spy…

In fact, Donor has a number of nice little touches. It feels like Rozum’s characterisation of Mulder and Scully has come a long way since Thin Air. In particular, there’s a nice wry gag where Scully sarcastically guesses the real explanation by simply following Mulder’s train of thought to its logical conclusion. “All the donor organs came from the same man,” she reads. She asks, “And you think that the donor came back from the grave to reclaim them?”

There is a sense that John Rozum is writing Donor as a sly (and very bleak) comedy, right down to the ending. Mulder and Scully come quite close to figuring out what is happening, but eventually piece together the wrong theory.  Mulder dismisses his own “vengeful walking dead” story (“there’s always next time”) in favour of one of the other recurring narratives of Rozum’s X-Files work: what if Francine Miller was just crazy?

Body work...

Body work…

It is a very cynical little joke that plays on the stories surrounding Donor. Both The Silent Blade and Silver Lining end with the implication that the central character is not motivated by supernatural causes, but is simply crazy. The Kanashibari hinges on the revelation that the last victim was actually the one responsible for what looked like a supernatural revenge story. As such, Donor is a clever play on that; a story similar to formula, but slightly wrong.

Donor is a grotesque and macabre (and subversive) piece of work. It is a highlight of John Rozum’s work on The X-Files, but also of the entire comic book run. It feels appropriate that it was unleashed upon the world in November 1996. In many respects, it is everything that Sanguinarium wishes it were.

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